One of the positions that Donald Trump took throughout his presidential campaign was that NATO, the military alliance between 28 countries in Europe and North America, is obsolete. He’s often expressed his dissatisfaction with the arrangement and inferred that the U.S. wouldn’t honor our obligations to the treaty without compensation. Is he correct? It’s a complex issue to say the least, but there may be some truth to what he says.
What Is NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was first established in 1949, a few years after World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War. It began with 12 countries, but has since grown to 28.
The purpose of the organization was to create a line of defense that would keep Germany, the U.S.S.R., or any other foreign power, from rising up and conquering the world. The treaty stated that an attack on any one country in the alliance would be considered an attack on all of them. Therefore, if Russia decided to bully one of the smaller nations, they would immediately have to contend with the major, nuclear-capable military powers of the U.S., England, and France. This is called the mutual defense clause.
That clause has only been invoked once in NATO’s history, and it wasn’t for a smaller, weaker nation. It was for us. After the September 11th attacks, the organization agreed to come to our defense against those who had targeted us.
Criticisms of NATO
NATO served its purpose for many years. There’s been peace in Europe ever since, and the U.S.S.R. never attacked any of the organization’s member nations. But the Cold War has been over for more than 25 years. While it’s true that there are still dangers that need to be kept at bay, the political climate in 2017 is very different from what it was in 1949.
Additionally, Donald Trump has brought up the fact that most of NATO’s member nations aren’t contributing the resources that they’re supposed to. Under the treaty, each country is supposed to spend no less than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense. Only five countries do: the United States, Greece, Poland, Estonia, and the United Kingdom. Several countries spend less than 1%, and Iceland spends a mere 0.1%, and doesn’t even have its own army.
Trump’s assertion is that the U.S., which spends a full 3.61% of its $17 trillion GDP on defense, is being taken advantage of by these other countries who aren’t paying their fair share, and that we shouldn’t have to pick up their slack.
An argument for that could certainly be made, but the situation isn’t quite the same as if, say, all of NATO’s members were paying into a general fund. Because everyone maintains their own defense independently, the imbalance should really only be an issue if we’re called upon to defend one of our member nations. And again, thus far, the only member nation that’s ever had to be defended is the United States.
Even though the Cold War is over, Russia still remains a significant threat—which was one of the major themes of the election. Additionally, there are other countries that pose threats to various NATO member nations, including the U.S. to refuse to honor the alliance, or even to state that intention publicly, could pave the way for one of those threats to attack, eventually plunging us into another world war.
Still, it’s true that NATO has a serious imbalance, as well as other flaws in its design. To dissolve it might not be the best idea, but it might be a good idea to revisit the agreement and update it to fit with the political climate of 2017.